Trauma and guilt are very closely connected throughout Extremely Loud & Incredibly Close. Throughout the novel, several characters demonstrate what psychologists call survivor’s guilt, which is when people who survive a traumatic event think they’ve done something wrong and feel guilty simply because they are still alive. National trauma is deeply connected to individual trauma throughout the novel. The major national trauma of September 11 becomes intertwined with the major personal trauma of Dad’s death. Oskar and his family have to deal with both the huge, public tragedy of 9/1l and their own individual disaster that shakes them to the core. Oskar feels incredibly guilty about the phone messages that Dad left on the morning of September 11, 2001. Oskar hides the answering machine tape with his Dad’s voice because he is too ashamed to admit to his Mom that heard his Dad but didn’t pick up. Oskar continues to obsess over his Dad, and his quest to find out who “Black” is becomes his way of trying to cope with the guilt that going through such a traumatic experience has produced.
Oskar’s Grandpa is also tremendously affected by trauma and guilt. After the Dresden firebombing, Grandpa eventually stops talking: his pregnant wife, Anna, had died in the bombing, and he has such tremendous survivor’s guilt that he becomes unable to speak. Grandpa married Anna’s sister, who is Oskar’s Grandma, after the war, but when Grandma became pregnant with Oskar’s Dad, Grandpa left her, adding yet another layer to his feelings of guilt. But even though Grandpa doesn’t speak out loud, he still communicates. He has the words YES and NO tattooed on his hands, and he writes notes when he needs to say something more complicated. Grandpa also writes long letters to his son (either his unborn son who died in the Dresden firebombing that he himself survived, or Oskar’s Dad who he abandoned), even though he never mails them.
Many of the feelings of guilt that trauma produces become resolved indirectly through the novel, rather than directly. Oskar does not ever get to say a proper goodbye to his Dad, but the key provides closure for William Black, who has been attempting to process his own father’s death. Grandpa does not get to reconnect with his son, but he connects with family when he moves in with Grandma. Guilt connects everyone in the novel, and though characters might not be able to help themselves directly, they can each help each other. Tragedies might not have a direct solution, but by many indirect routes, the guilt can become bearable. Building community is presented as a way to deal with trauma and guilt: things that are crippling to bear alone can become manageable if there are others around to help spread the load around, if not lessen it.
Trauma and Guilt ThemeTracker
Trauma and Guilt Quotes in Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close
And also, there are so many times when you need to make a quick escape, but humans don’t have their own wings, or not yet, anyway, so what about a birdseed shirt?
Isn’t it so weird how the number of dead people is increasing even though the earth stays the same size, so that one day there isn’t going to be room to bury anyone anymore?
A few weeks after the words day, I started writing lots of letters. I don’t know why, but it was one of the only things that made my boots lighter.
There were four more messages from him: one at 9:12, one at 9:31, one at 9:46, and one at 10:04. I listened to them, and listened to them again, and then before I had time to figure out what to do, or even what to think or feel, the phone started ringing.
It was 10:26:47.
I looked at the caller ID and saw that it was him.
I haven’t always been silent, I used to talk and talk and talk and talk, I couldn’t keep my mouth shut, the silence overtook me like a cancer.
A lot of the time I’d get that feeling like I was in the middle of a huge black ocean, or in deep space, but not in the fascinating way. It’s just that everything was incredibly far away from me.
“It doesn’t make me feel good when you say that something I do reminds you of Dad.” “Oh. I’m sorry. Do I do that a lot?” “You do it all the time….And Grandma always says that things I do remind her of Grandpa…It also makes me feel unspecial.” “That’s the last thing that either Grandma or I would want. You know you’re the most special thing to us, don’t you?” “I guess so.” “The most.”
And maybe you could rate the people you knew by how much you loved them, so if the device of the person in the ambulance detected the device of the person he loved the most, or the person who loved him the most, and the person in the ambulance was really badly hurt, and might even die, the ambulance could flash GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU! GOODBYE! I LOVE YOU!
Sometimes I think about those hundred letters laid across my bedroom floor. If I hadn’t collected them, would our house have burned less brightly?
I hated myself for going, why couldn’t I be the kind of person who stays?
Did she always have something to read in front of her so she wouldn’t have to look at anything else? All of the words I’d written to her over all of those years, had I never said anything at all?
I have so much to tell you, the problem isn’t that I’m running out of time, I’m running out of room, this book is filling up, there couldn’t be enough pages, I looked around the apartment this morning for one last time and there was writing everywhere, filling the walls and mirrors, I’d rolled up the rugs so I could write on the floor, I’d written on the walls and around the bottles of wine we were given but never drank, I wear only short sleeves, even when it’s cold, because my arms are books, too. But there’s too much to express. I’m sorry.
I felt, that night, on that stage, under that skull, incredibly close to everything in the universe, but also extremely alone. I wondered, for the first time in my life, if life was worth all the work it took to live. What exactly made it worth it? What’s so horrible about being dead forever, and not feeling anything, and not even dreaming? What’s so great about feeling and dreaming?
But still, it gave me heavy, heavy boots. Dad wasn’t a Great Man, not like Winston Churchill, whoever he was. Dad was just someone who ran a family jewelry business. Just an ordinary dad. But I wished so much, then, that he had been Great. I wished he’d been famous, famous like a movie star, which is what he deserved. I wished Mr. Black had written about him, and risked his life to tell the world about him, and had reminders of him around his apartment.
And then I said something that I wasn’t planning on saying, and didn’t even want to say. As it came out of my mouth, I was ashamed that it was mixed with any of Dad’s cells that I might have inhaled when we went to visit Ground Zero. “If I could have chose, I would have chosen you!”
No matter how I feel, I’m not going to let it out. If I have to cry, I’m gonna cry on the inside. If I have to bleed, I’ll bruise. If my heart starts going crazy, I’m not gonna tell everyone else in the world about it. It doesn’t help anything. It just makes everyone’s life worse.
I can’t stop thinking about that night, the clusters of red flares, the sky that was like black water, and how only hours before I lost everything, I had everything.
One million pieces of paper filled the sky. They stayed there, like a ring around the building. Like the rings of Saturn. The rings of coffee staining my father’s desk. The ring Thomas told me he didn’t need. I told him he wasn’t the only one who needed.
I lowered the volume until it was silent.
The same pictures over and over.
Planes going into buildings.
I’d never felt more alive or alone.
I was in Dresden’s train station when I lost everything for the second time.
I looked at one of the other televisions and there was only one building, one hundred ceilings had become one hundred floors, which had become nothing, I was the only one who could believe it, the sky was filled with paper, pink feathers.
There won’t be enough pages in this book for me to tell you what I need to tell you, I could write smaller, I could slice the pages down their edges to make two pages, I could write over my own writing, but then what?
I asked her to tell me about you, she said, “Not our son, my son.”
He needed me, and I couldn’t pick up. I just couldn’t pick up. I just couldn’t. Are you there? He asked eleven times. I know, because I’ve counted. It’s one more than I can count on my fingers….Sometimes I think he knew I was there. Maybe he kept saying it to give me time to get brave enough to pick it up.
I think about all of the things I’ve done, Oskar. And all of the things I didn’t do. The mistakes I’ve made are dead to me. But I can’t take back the things I never did.
I was surprised again, although again I shouldn’t have been. I was surprised that Dad wasn’t there. In my brain I knew he wouldn’t be, obviously, but I guess my heart believed something else. Or maybe I was surprised by how incredibly empty it was. I felt like I was looking into the dictionary definition of emptiness.
I’d have said “Dad?” backwards, which would have sounded the same as “Dad” forward.
He would have told me the story of the Sixth Borough, from the voice in the can at the end to the beginning, from “I love you” to “Once upon a time…”
We would have been safe.